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What is a biographical precis?
A detailed definition and explanation to get you started in using this versatile writing format.

How will my biographical precis be evaluated?
Here are some guidelines to the grading of your effort.

How do I write a biographical precis?
Text instructions
How do I write a biographical precis?
Interactive tutorial  (requires Flash plugin)
Can I see an example of a biographical precis?
Of course. Three are available:
- Douglass
- Lao Tzu
- Annotated Example
How do I submit my assignments?

How do I read for this format?
a printable reading guide to help you read and write for the biographical precis format.



  Biographical precis: how do I write one? (text)

The following items show the format of the Biographical precis in the barest form. Compare the form to the examples provided to see how information is made to fill out the format. This is a rather rigid format, but you must be flexible enough to make it adapt to the situations of your intended subject. For instance, some notable philosophers (e.g. Socrates and Jesus) did not write anything at all. So sentence 2 will be difficult to satisfy. Instead, one must note what writing about that person provides us with the historical record.

Items 1 and 3 (a,b,c) are interdependent. In the first sentence, the major fields of influence are noted. Some people are important in one area, others in several. Each area of significant influence must be explained, so the sentence(s) in 3 (a,b,c) expand to accommodate the fields noted in sentence one. Linus Pauling, for instance, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on the chemical bond, and later the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to establish an international nuclear test ban treaty. Those are clearly two important and distinct areas of accomplishment. In a biographical precis on Pauling, we would note both honors in sentence 1, then each in turn in sentence 3a and 3b.

In the second sentence, the task is to list the individual's significant works. The first type of work to come to mind is the book. But many important people produced value by other means than writing. Actors, explorers, political figures, and an endless variety of others, have influences on the world by many means. The means of action, is what is meant here by the work. You will find that most (but not all) philosophers operate by writing. Some adventurous contemporaries philosophers are even having impact by creating websites :)

A rhetorically accurate verb is an action word that describes what kind of action the individual performed that created their influence. Here are some examples of rhetorically accurate verbs in use.
   Ayn Rand championed radical capitalism
   Douglas Engelbart invented the computer mouse
   Galileodiscovered sunspots
   Mohammad founded Islam
   Salk cured smallpox
    Jimi Hendrix redefined the electric guitar
Please note that the descriptions are minimal here and not exemplary of what should be in a biographical precis. See the examples provided for fuller clarification.


[Name]of the person, [life span (birth-death in parenthesis)], is/was a [geographical identifier] [major field identifier] who is known for her/his contributions to [field a] and [field b] and [field c] and [field d].

[Name]’s major works are: (title i), (title ii), (title iii), and ...continued if needed to (title iv).



In [field a], s/he [rhetorically accurate verb] [a succinct expression of what the person did in that field].


In [field b], s/he [rhetorically accurate verb] [a succinct expression of what the person did in that field].


In [field c], s/he [rhetorically accurate verb] [a succinct expression of what the person did in that field].


In [field d], s/he [rhetorically accurate verb] [a succinct expression of what the person did in that field].
4. When [Name] writes [a quote (or summary statement) identifying an aspect of the person’s thought/life/work] I [rhetorically accurate verb] a statement of the aspect of your thought/life that is so related.

What I want to know about [Name] is [a statement of one point that you want to know more about or feel that you could gain a better understanding of].


References: use standard bibliography style (APA or MLA) to reference your sources. Use multiple sources, compare them, and reference all that you use (i.e. get information from, not just look at).

McFeely, William S. 1991. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton Company. Inc.

Hypatia of Alexandria. 1999. The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, August 17, 2002.